Ukrainian Nationhood, “Russkii Mir,” and the Abuse of History

by Thomas Bremer


Many observers of the current war in Ukraine who try to analyze its deeper reasons refer to the idea of a “Russian World,” “Russkii Mir.” This idea, they claim, is the key concept behind the Russian aggression, and shows the tight connection between religion and politics in Russia. A glance at the website of the Moscow Patriarchate, however, shows that in recent years the term has been used very rarely—and then mostly to refer to a foundation called “Russkii Mir,” established by President Putin and meant to promote Russian culture and the knowledge of the Russian language abroad. True, high-ranking representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church have played an important role in that foundation from the time of its 2007 creation. But what does that have to do with Ukraine now?

In some ways, the year 2014 was decisive. When it became clear after the Euromaidan demonstrations that Ukraine had decided to leave the orbit of Moscow and to definitively turn towards the West, the term “Russian World” all but disappeared from the statements of Russian Church leaders. It was clear that the idea of a civilization based on East Slavic Orthodoxy could not work without Kyiv and Ukraine, so the concept seemed to be no longer feasible. Some of its central ideas stayed, however. It is they which have proved important for the justification of the war against Ukraine, both in President Putin’s and Patriarch Kirill’s argumentations. Here, I will try to outline and to assess the most important points: the denial of a distinct Ukrainian nation, and the denial of Ukrainian statehood as such. The worldview behind these ideas seems to me more important for understanding the Russian aggression than the somewhat amorphous category of a “Russian World.”

In this perception, shared by Putin and Patriarch Kirill, Ukrainians are regarded as belonging to the Russian nation. Alternatively, Ukrainians and Russians are “fraternal people,” parts of an overarching national entity. This is justified by citing a common origin, described not only in ecclesial, but also in state statements, as a “common baptismal font.” This refers to the point in the 10th century when the Eastern Slavs organized in an association of principalities known as Kyivan Rus accepted Christianity. Eventually, the modern nations (I use the word in the sense of peoples, not of states) of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians evolved as descendants of the Rus, in different parts of Eastern Europe and with different cultural influences. The diverse Russian states gained supremacy over most of what is today Ukraine and Belarus, and the Russian national discourse prevailed, as did the Russian language.

One important linguistic detail should be mentioned here: The Russian word Russkii, or Russian, refers to medieval Rus and to modern Russia alike. Modern Ukrainian, however, distinguishes between rus’ky (referring to Rus, and also to Ruthenians) and rosiys’ky (referring to Russia). That implies in Russian use a continuity between Rus and Russia. Russkii Mir is the world of the Rus and also the world of Russia. (Although the word rossiisky also exists in Russian, in modern use it designates mostly the Russian state.)

When representatives of the Russian state and church refer to Russians and Ukrainians as one people, as Patriarch Kirill did in his sermon on March 9, they are thinking in this line of continuity: the people of the Rus equals the Russian people. Problematic as that is in itself, they (more importantly) neglect the fact that nations are a social construct. Such construction processes have taken place in all three nations: there exist a Ukrainian nation and a Belarusian nation in the same way as there exists a Russian nation. When a significant group of people claim their own nationhood, it does exist, regardless of any claims others may make or even of historical events. Germans and Austrians, or the English and the Canadians, are now two distinct nations, for example—but no such differentiation was made before their own nation-building processes. The existence of a nation has very little to do with origin, or even with objectivity.

A similar observation can be made regarding the Ukrainian state. On the eve of the war, as Putin said in his late February address—and church sources repeated it—the Ukrainian state took its beginning only with Lenin. What can one say to this? The Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic was indeed a Bolshevik invention—but, if it comes to that, so was the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. The modern Ukrainian state has existed since 1991, when it declared its independence. The modern Russian Federation has also existed since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Thus, both states are more or less the same age. One might even argue that Ukraine is a little bit older. In any case, it would be ahistorical to equate earlier forms of Russian or Ukrainian statehood with modern states. Russia is not older because there was a Russian state when there was no Ukrainian state. Ukraine is not older because Kyivan Rus existed before any Russian statehood. And the age of a state (whether old or young) does not give it any priority with respect other states (whether older or younger).

These Russian positions also contain a not-so-veiled anti-Western stance. The civilization imagined in the Russian statements is seen as one which is different from modern Western ideas of human existence and of society. The latter (they claim) is characterized by ideas of individualism which led it astray from God, whereas the former created a way of living together as God wanted it to be. Therefore, Ukrainians who resist this model, including now also many hierarchs of the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, are represented as being misled by the West.

To be clear: There is of course a common origin, and even a common history, of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. But all went very distinct developments as well. A common history in the past does not automatically imply commonalities in the present. The statements from Russia which try to justify Ukraine’s belonging to the Russian orbit (and to justify the war when Ukraine does not want to belong to that orbit) are based on a premodern understanding of nationhood and state. But both phenomena, nationhood and state, are historical: they arose at one point in history, and they may again disappear. In any case, the primordial understanding in the Russian argumentation, as well as the use of anthropomorphic terms like “fraternal states,” cannot match the complex reality of political processes. It is a dilettantish use of history, one seen previously in Putin’s infamous article outlining similar points in summer of 2021. We could perhaps smile at such amateurish attempts to “understand” history—if they did not have such dramatic consequences for Ukraine. The enormous and brave resistance of Ukrainians to the Russian invaders are a clear, though bitter, proof of how wrong Putin—and “Russkii Mir”—was and is.

This text is not a reaction to the “Declaration on the ‘Russian World’ (Russkii Mir) Teaching,” published on Public Orthodoxy on March 13. It was finished and sent to Public Orthodoxy before that declaration became public. The author, however, maintains that “Russian World” is not a useful category for a scholarly analysis of the ongoing Russian aggression and its ecclesial underpinnings.

Thomas Bremer teaches Ecumenical Theology and Eastern Churches Studies at Münster University, Germany.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.